Engineering creativity is a core skill for every engineer. It’s even more important, for engineers who lead and work on the bleeding edge.
Because according to Wikipedia, engineering consists of the following:
Engineering is the use of scientific principles to design and build machines, structures, and other items, including bridges, tunnels, roads, vehicles, and buildings.
BUT, memorizing a bunch of theorems and equations doesn’t make engineers creative. Understanding how to apply mathematical and scientific concepts does though. Even more, engineering creativity will be the last skillset to become automated. So creative skills will insulate you from the oncoming automation revolution.
#1 Run with the best idea you come up with
When you’re struggling to come up with the perfect new design, just run with the best idea you come up with. Sure, your idea may at first suck, but it’s okay.
Getting the ball rolling with a design idea is what’s important. Because this will spark all types of new ideas for you. All the while, you won’t waste endless time looking for the perfect idea.
Plus, I find getting a design on paper helps me discover new issues I hadn’t thought of before. In the same vein, this is why we build prototypes. Prototypes allow us to do real-world investigative work to later find the perfect design.
#2 Question everything around you
A curious mind exposes you to answers and creative solutions. For example, the following are some Tesla vehicle questions you could have whirling in your mind:
- How do electric cars work?
- How is power safely transmitted in cables?
- What are the main advantages of electric cars over gasoline cars?
- How do cars drive autonomously?
- How can electric car batteries recharge so many times with so little degradation?
By learning from existing creative solutions, you collect more creative data points. And the more data points you gather, the more creative you’ll become.
It’s important to realize, engineering today heavily relies on millions of past discoveries. For example, the company Tesla didn’t invent electric cars. The tech for electric cars existed for decades before Elon Musk took over at Tesla. Tesla simply improved over the tech by applying other proven engineering concepts.
And this is one level of engineering creativity. Because you’re not always going to design something super unique no one has seen before.
#3 Gather information in your field of work
The more knowledge you hold, the better you can dissect problems to find solutions. I suggest becoming a vacuum and sucking in as much relevant information as you can in your field.
The more information you have, the better you can connect the dots with your own creative solutions. I compare data to tools for my creativity. The more tools you have, the better you can construct ideas.
#4 Just start even doing something small
You’re not going to become a creative wizard overnight. Everything worthwhile takes time. At the same time, with creativity, there’s no ceiling to shoot for as you can always get better.
So, the best thing to do is to just start doing work. Then over time, your experience will snowball into bigger and better things. It’s a positive feedback loop.
This is why after every year of employment, you’ll find yourself doing more complex work. This isn’t a coincidence.
#5 Read biographies of influential people in your field
Biographies are powerful creative tools. When you read one, focus on the thoughts of the person. Try to pick apart how their mind worked and what made them tick.
Better yet, place yourself in their shoes with their problems staring back at you. Then, try to puzzle together the solutions. And do this before you peak and find out what they chose to do. Because everything in hindsight makes you say, “duh!”
Once you pick up their train of thought, you can use it to solve problems of your own. So biographies can serve you in more ways than one.
#6 Disconnect from social media to free your mind
You need a clear mind for long stretches of time to tap into your engineering creativity. And one huge wall to creative thoughts is social media.
Social media constantly pulls your thoughts and emotions in many different directions. And the emotional triggers can be wild and destructive. As a result, your brain’s processing power plummets.
So, protect your mind by limiting your usage of social media. Or at the very least, don’t read comments as they can be outright toxic.
#7 Don’t be afraid of starting from scratch
There’s nothing wrong with starting over. In fact, you’re doing everyone a huge disservice if you think your first idea is your best idea. More times than not, your first version is ONLY the starting point.
When I first started working as an engineer, I always tried to run with my first ideas. Because to me, they looked good and I didn’t want to waste time redoing everything. Then as I dug into my solutions, I discovered design issues.
But because of my stubbornness, I wasted weeks of time trying to force a square peg into a round hole. All the while, the foundation to my design had issues, but I still didn’t scrap it. Then finally, a senior engineer told me to start from scratch and take another approach. Otherwise, I’d endlessly be going in circles.
In short, even my shortcomings as a young buck are part of the creative process. You do a design, learn from it, and then improve over it. And sometimes this means starting from scratch. This is why now, I never get overly attached to any design.
#8 Look for new perspectives for designs
The common theme is, the more data you have, the more you can boost your engineering creativity.
But how can you quickly gather globs of amazing data? The answer is through perspective. Because more often than not, we get trapped inside our own thought bubbles. And we then can’t view problems in different lights.
Not only does this limit your creativity, but you’ll almost never come up with the best designs. While new perspectives allow you to dissect problems in completely new different ways.
So if you’re designing cars, research car designs from different manufacturers. Then, go speak with the engineers who made the designs. Without a doubt, your creativity with car designs will then skyrocket.
#9 Be a copycat
There’s a huge stigma around copying other people’s ideas. But the truth is, ALL engineers stand on the shoulders of past engineers and scientists.
I’m not saying to steal what’s inside a patent. Rather, iterate over and improve an existing design. This is what all great engineers do.
Because NO ONE creates designs so novel, they’re not influenced by past discoveries. Even the innovative SpaceX wasn’t the first company to launch and reuse rockets. 25 years ago, NASA successfully launched its prototype reusable rocket called the DCX. This rocket could also land vertically.
But then, SpaceX came along and iterated over the existing technology in an amazing way. They’ve successfully landed their Falcon Boosters on drone-controlled ships in the middle of oceans!
The point is, recycle past designs and then iterate over them to meet your project specs. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Because design iterations are a form of creativity in themselves.
#10 Constantly challenge yourself
Never settle! Rather, always challenge yourself in the following ways:
- Constantly look to learn more
- Test new ideas over old ideas
- Take on new work you’ve never done before
Just think about it. If humans had ever become complacent, we’d maybe still be living in caves today. We would’ve become satisfied with life after just learning how to create fire with two sticks. So I’m glad humans never became satisfied.
And this mentality of endlessly challenging the status quo is best seen in Elon Musk today. He’s constantly pushing the envelope with each of his companies. And he’s not slowing down despite all his accomplishments. Even as his challenges grow in size and complexity.
Elon’s secret sauce is using each of his successes as a stepping stone to his next challenges. And I bet if he lands humans on Mars, he’ll still continue to push the envelope.
#11 Distance yourself from your kryptonite
Distance yourself from any and all distractions. Because we all have focus-crashing kryptonite. For some people it’s their phone, for others it’s friends and family. Whatever it is, get it away from you when you need to focus.
Because you need all your brainpower to tap into your engineering creativity. So, find the best-fitting environment and leverage it to fuel your creative mind.
#12 Build confidence and overcome insecurity
Confidence is key when you entertain bold ideas. This is because the most creative ideas attract many naysayers. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear the following as an engineer:
“This is not how we do it. I’ve been doing this design for over 30 years this way. You’re just wasting your time!”
Everything is further magnified if you don’t have many years of experience. Or, if you don’t have the alphabet soup listed after your name. And this is why the ability to crush your insecurities in engineering is important.
#13 Write down your thoughts and ideas
I always find it funny how the best ideas strike you at the strangest of times. So when a light bulb goes off in your head, quickly write down the idea. Because more than likely, the idea will escape your mind and may never return.
I’ve had this happen to me one too many times and it’s frustrating. So now, I always instantly write down any and all ideas I think of. I either use the notepad app on my phone, or I carry paper and pencil with me.
#14 Say “Yes!” more often
Working with close-minded people can be frustrating. It’s either their way or the highway. And this creates an echo chamber, where creativity takes a major hit.
As we learned in Tip #8, new perspectives are a huge part of creativity. So, always keep an open mind. Because a poor idea today may be the best idea tomorrow with some polishing.
Even if what you’re told is bullshit, it’s still another data point at your disposal. You’ll then better learn what to do and not to do.
#15 Keep your head in the clouds and daydream more
We all daydream and there’s nothing shameful about it. And if you’ve noticed, the subjects you read about the most, tend to shape your daydreaming. For this reason, I find daydreaming plays a critical role in boosting creativity.
Even more, new studies suggest daydreaming may be a signal of your level of smarts. Where people with too much brainpower can’t stop their minds from wandering. And a powerful wandering mind is probably likely to discover something very cool.
So, when you daydream and think of all types of cool ideas, write them down. See what you can come up with. Much of the creativity we see around us today, I’m sure has come from people who got lost in their dreams.
#16 Exercise and break a sweat
No matter how you spin it, life is stressful. And I find exercise to be one of the best ways to reduce stress and clear your mind. For as long as I can remember, I’ve used exercise to reset my mind after stressful days.
I go under a heavy barbell and rep out the weight until I can’t lift anymore. Then, the same endorphins making me feel great, also help me better focus. This then leads to boosted creativity.
#17 Step outside of your comfort zone and take risks
You can’t stay within your comfort zone when it comes to creativity. Because only safe and proven work sits inside your comfort zone.
To test your creative limits, you need to take risks. You need to expose yourself to possible failure and ridicule. It’ll definitely seem scary at first. And as cliche, as it sounds, the greater the risk, the greater the reward.
What’s more, the higher you want to move up in engineering, the greater risks you’ll need to take. Because you’ll have less handholding to guide you in your design work as the leading expert. In other words, all the required creativity will fall on YOUR shoulders.
#18 Find someone to lean on for emotional support
Tackling complex engineering problems can be mind-numbingly stressful. In these instances, any type of support helps. Especially if your support is someone in your field. Someone who can empathize with you, and even give you feedback.
I find emotional support helps you refocus your mind. Then, in return, you get inspiration and reassurance to continue on your creative road.
#19 Take a step outside of your circle of expertise
Sometimes, inspiration comes from industries outside of yours. Or even, from something completely off the wall.
For example, birds inspired humans to want to build airplanes. Just take a look at the Airbus “Bird of Prey” airliner inspired by eagles. The aircraft mimics an eagle’s wing and tail structure.
Even more fascinating is the inspiration from eagle feathers. They inspired the individually controlled aircraft feathers for active flight control. The point is, speak with people in industries outside of yours. Learn from them. Pick their brains.
Heck, go nature watch as you may come up with the next amazing vehicle. All you’re trying to do is gather more data to beef up your engineering creativity. And the more data you gather, the more creative you’ll become. Even when it’s obscure data.
#20 Take yourself out of the context of reality
I’m not saying to take magical mushrooms. But, it’s important to pull yourself out of the context of your reality from time to time. Because the daily grind sometimes shuts the doors on the childhood curiosity we all once had.
Now, the good thing is, there are many safe ways to do this. What I like to do is to immerse myself in one of the following mediums:
- Video games
- The lens of a telescope or microscope
All these activities help remove me from my everyday life bubble. Then, I get a whole new lens on life, enhancing my creativity. This traces back to Tip #8 with perspective.
As a favorite escape of mine, I suggest sitting alone and looking deep into the night sky. The cosmos is one of the most fascinating and intriguing escapes for the human mind. You instantly get zapped out from society’s shackles.
Becoming a creative genius won’t happen overnight. And the ceiling of creativity differs from person to person. But, by utilizing these 20 tips, over time you’ll increase your engineering creativity. In return, you’ll become a much better engineer.
Even more, you can check out how to be a creative engineer in 7 steps. These steps go hand in hand with the 20 tips in this article.
In the end, with boosted creativity, you’ll gain greater respect for your field of work. And, you’ll feel more fulfilled in life.
What are your suggestions for boosting engineering creativity? Do you think engineers can become more creative?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.